Friday, October 11, 2013

The Skin I Live In (2011) and Victim (2010): Adaptations and tonalities

The Skin I Live In (2011)
dir: Pedro Almodovar

Victim (2010)
dir: Matt Eskandari; Michael A. Pierce

One of the challenges of being both a cinephile and a reader is watching an adaptation of a book that you have read.  Some adaptations take the base material as a starting point, and change the plot points at random for what the director would consider a better or more honest experience..  Some adaptations are completely faithful and get the book just right.  Some miss whole points of the book because the book was overstuffed, or the points didn't fit.  Just as there are many way to read a book, there are infinitely more ways to adapt a book.

On Wednesday, I looked at how Mary Harron's adaptation (and promotion) of American Psycho could have missed the underlying points of Bret Easton Ellis' novel, but then wrote about how maybe it didn't due to thematic clues.  There were choices that she made that were antithetical to what a reader may have wanted, especially with the elimination of the extremely violent scenes in order to focus more on the dark humor and social satire of the novel.  In doing so, she may have also been attempting to make it easier to read the layers, if she knew it was there.

Today, I want to look at one book, and how it was adapted by two different filmmakers.  The first film is a Spanish film from acclaimed director Pedro Almodovar, who uses the source material as a starting point to make a very Almodovar film, while also staying true to the messages of the book.  The second film is a low-budget American film which strips the source material to the bone, changes it just enough to not have to pay for rights to the author, and creates a stripped down, streamlined horror film.

The book in question? Thierry Jonquet's Mygale, a very short French novel whose title translates to Tarantula.  The book is a sado-masochistic horror noir thriller black comedy.  It tells a dual story that comes together in the end.  The first story is the sado-masochistic story of Richard, a successful plastic surgeon who has a beautiful mistress, Eve, with whom he resides in a country mansion.  They seem to have a relationship fully based in animosity, and most evenings he takes her out for escorting on severe sado-masochistic adventure, in which she seems totally complicit. Richard also visits his daughter in an asylum who self-mutilates and is on a suicide watch.  The second story is about Alex, a petty thief who wants to get plastic surgery because his face has been recognized.  Alex sets upon kidnapping Eve in order to force Richard into giving him plastic surgery.  Alex is also looking for an old thief pal of his, Vincent, who has been missing for years.  These threads are tied together by a late book reveal of Vincent having raped Richard's daughter, he is kidnapped by Richard and turned into Eve, with full on descriptions of the prolonged torture and transformation process.

Essentially, the novel is a rape-revenge novel (the revenge committed by the family of the victim, in the tradition of The Virgin Spring and Last House on the Left).  Almost all of the horror is committed on a woman who used to be a man who violated a woman.  And, the rest of the horror is on the man who is becoming a woman.  It is a novel completely steeped in gender issues which also makes it clear that everybody is damaged in some form.

The tonality of the book waffles between horror and comedy and drama and Marquis de Sade sex farce. Given the complexity of this novel, and the variety of tonalities that it waffles between, it is easy to see how this book could be adapted wildly, without even completely changing around the elements to make a story of your own.

The Skin I Live In (2011)

While The Skin I Live In was released in 2011, the movie had been announced in 2002 by Almodovar.  This was a passion project of his, who had read the book in the 90s.  It didn't get released stateside until 2004, and then only by a pulp distributor (mind you it is a fantastic novel that I highly highly recommend), so it isn't exactly a widely known novel stateside.  By announcing his film first, and by actually buying the rights to the novel, Almodovar had full license to the book, and was able to keep the elements he wanted, change the elements he needed, and make everything his own.

One of the things one notices when comparing The Skin I Live In to Mygale is that Almodovar completely changes the tonality of the story, while still keeping some of the themes and adding in that flavor of Spanish-fried soap opera melodrama that he has done so well since All About My Mother.  It is just as interesting to note what he throws out and tones down as what he keeps in.

The first thing one notices that Almodovar completely throws out is the sado-masochistic relationship between Vera (Almodovar's Eve) and Robert (the surgeon).  Unlike Mygale, we're introduced to Vera as a forlorn woman in a body suit, who is not specifically trying to piss off everybody.  And, she is kept in her mansion instead of being taken out for abusive sex setups.

Almodovar makes Vera much more of a deeply fragile but tough person. Not somebody who is pointedly resentful of her situation, but is passively playing the long game.  He makes Vera far more feminine than Eve, and even has Vera played by an actress instead of an actor in drag.  Almodovar also has Vincente played by an actor, instead of the same actress as Vera, and also has Vincente possess a bit more femininity in his scenes as Vincente than the other male characters in The Skin I Live In. Almodovar's Vincente is also no longer a thief.  He is a regular missing teenager who had once worked in his mother's dress shop.

Almodovar also severely remade Alex.  Alex becomes Zeca, who is still a thief who needs to have plastic surgery.  Zeca, however is no longer looking for his partner Vincente.  Instead, he is actually the son of Marilla, Richard's maid.  And, Zeca is also Robert's half-brother, though neither of them know that.  Zeca also had an affari with Robert's wife who had been off to be with Zeca when she got into a car wreck killing her.  Didn't I say that Almodovar had wanted his melodramatic elements?

Almodovar spends the opening and closing 40 minutes in the post-surgery present, using the reveal of the history of Vincente's rape and his transformation into Vera for the centerpiece section of the film.  He also plays down the initial torture and brainwashing period required to feminize Vincente in order to focus more on the relationship dramatics of the central "family" of Robert, Vera, and Marilla.  Even Zeca's rape of Vera, and subsequent murder, is mainly an impetus to draw Robert, Vera and Marilla into more honest and intimate relations.

Almodovar's main themes transformed from basic rape/revenge and Stockholm syndrome black pulp into being about change and family ties that bind and strangle.  Marilla is tied to Zeca, even though she doesn't want to be.  She lets him in, but can't kill him.  In turn, he ties her up and gives himself permission to run rampant through the house.  Marilla's ex lover, Zeca's father, was a crazy servant she hasn't seen since the affair.  Robert is completely devoted to both his daughter and wife though they're long gone.  He's also devoted to Marilla who is essentially the only family he has left.

Almodovar is also about change.  Robert changes skin to make it more flame retardant after his experiences with his wife's firey car accident.  Robert has already changed from family man to violent vengeance seeker. Vincente changes into Vera. Robert's daughter changes from socially inept into traumatized victim. Everybody and everything in Almodovar's film is based on what you see and what isn't there and what is changing.  People are watching people change.  Everybody has windows into everybody else's room. The basement operating rooms are defined with glass and clear plastic hangings.  Yet, for all this supposed transparency, secrets are abound, and as people are changing if you can watch close enough.

However, Almodovar also kept the horror of the story.  It utilizes three of the most violating experiences one could survive.  One is the rape of a woman.  Another is the realization that what you did was rape when it seemed to start out as mutual longing.  And the third is the removal of the most basic identity one has: their gender.  But, he buries all this horror in the Almodovar family drama, without losing the themes of gender identity, violation of women, and deep protection and revenge by a father for his daughter.  Using the horrific, but not contentious, elements of Mygale, Almodovar crafted something completely different, and yet based in the same story.  While it is completely unfaithful, in tone, to the novel, it is completely faithful to Almodovar and should be viewed as a separate entity.

Victim (2010)

Except that somebody trainspotted Mygale the year before and made a completely low budget rip-off called Victim, which stripped out 2/3 of the book to focus on the torture and transformation process for 70 minutes.  Victim is a horror movie straight up. It starts with a video rape of a cute girl, then switches to the kidnapping and torture of a dude in LA.  The dude is kept in a basement dungeon, where he is beat, brainwashed, and feminized (to the point of getting a genital transplant, but not breast implants) by a plastic surgeon and his dumb man servant.

Victim completely focuses on the torture while also saving the rape/revenge reveal for the finale.  It eliminates the mistress portion of the novel.  It eliminates the Vincente searching story, and replaces it with a half-assed cop search story.  The novel is completely stripped away to explore the torture of brainwashing and forced gender changes.  It also adds in the weirdness of the brainwashing the rapist to pretending he is the daughter of the surgeon.

What Victim adds in is a replication of the original rape/murder.  The climax of Victim has the surgeon watching the violation of his daughter, while the rapist is actively raped by the man-servant in a replication of the hotel room of the original violation. The surgeon wanted to make the rapist experience exactly what he had experienced when he was the rapist in the beginning.

While it is a different movie in terms of tone, Victim feels like the movie that Almodovar stripped out of The Skin I Live In.  Watching the two as a back-to-back double-feature feels like you're watching the missing segments that were simply too icky for the first.  Victim is rougher, more brutal, and generally raw.  It has a stream-lined simplicity that makes Victim a sleek bullet of ugliness, especially if you ignore any of the cop scenes which seem to be completely superfluous to the movie as well.

Weirdly, both movies are at their strongest in a double feature with each other.  Victim is a fascinatingly bitter movie, which focuses on the torture of a man, and never loses sight of that.  It's a more straight-forward feministic rape-revenge.  While, The Skin I Live In is far more oblique and dramatic.  Together, they form a complex morality that is a potent duality.

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